Are you sitting comfortably? Then let Gordon Balme tell you the story of the University of the Third Age You may well be asking yourself what is this Third Age?' My definition is that it is the time of your life when you are no longer in full-time employment, your family is grown up and you have the chance to develop old interests, or take up new hobbies.

In order to meet the needs of this age group, the University of the Third Age (U3A) started in France in 1972, and now exists in most European countries.

There, the U3As are taught by academics from the local universities, rather like the extra-mural departments of our universities.

However, in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, U3As are self-help endeavours where groups of people come together to share their knowledge, skills and experience.

Let me hasten to say that there are no exams and no degrees awarded. You just take part for the joy of learning something new.

The movement started in the UK in 1981, and there are now over 670 U3As with a membership of nearly 190,000 nationwide.

Oxfordshire has 19 U3As, with a membership of about 3,300. Some are quite small with fewer than 100 members but several have more than 300.

The larger ones usually offer a wider range of special interest groups (SIGs) but, because of the overall numbers within the county, there is usually somewhere close enough for you to find a SIG that will appeal to you.

So, what is the range of SIGs?

Well, I spent an afternoon ringing round most of the Oxfordshire U3As (their contact numbers are all listed on the U3A trust website, and I found an astounding number of subjects.

Obviously, you will find some that are available in most U3As: walking, bridge, history, books, art history, music and play reading. Then there are the language groups; French, German, Spanish and Italian are the main ones but you will also find modern Greek, Latin and Russian.

I didn't find an actual A to Z of courses, but the range seemed never-ending - from astronomy, bellringing, calligraphy, computing, digital photography through keep fit, madrigal singing, Mah Jong, painting, poetry and philosophy, right through to sculpture, Tiddly-Winks and zoology. I made that last one up, but give us time and there will be one eventually.

Group leaders are U3A members who may be experts in the subject concerned, or may be interested amateurs who work with their group on a self-help basis.

A feature of every U3A is a programme of talks, often illustrated by slides, at regular intervals varying from once a week to once a month.

The speakers are sometimes from within the U3A movement and sometimes someone recommended by members.

These meetings are the opportunity for members to get together outside their special interest groups, learn something new and socialise over a cup of tea.

Some U3As take this socialising further and have a Sunday lunch club, a summer lunch party and a Christmas lunch party.

These events can provide a welcome social aspect to members' lives as they grow older, or their circumstances change.

Many U3As organise outings to places of interest, for example National Trust properties or theatres, and one or two organise overseas visits.

The U3A Trust, which is based in Bromley, organises national events and the newly-formed Thames Valley U3A regional organisation has started to promote study days. The first was Tracing and Recording your Family History'.

A regional conference is to be held on May 28 in Thame - with the title of What can U3A do for you and what can you do for U3A?' If you feel like starting a U3A from scratch you will get most of the information you need at that event.

The charges for these events are quite modest, as is the annual fee for membership of a U3A, which is in the range £12-£20.

If you are computer-literate - and if you aren't we can soon put that right - you will find masses of information on the Internet, not only about the U3A movement in Oxfordshire, but also about the on-line courses run by the U3A Trust.

Some of these courses are tutored, so they start on a specific date but most of them are untutored, which means you can start them at a date to suit yourself.

There are five on different aspects of art history, four on different aspects of writing and 20 on other varied subjects. All are free.

The Open University has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U3A Trust, so you can see there is still plenty of scope for future development.

The Government has been promoting lifelong learning for a while now, but members of the U3A movement have known the benefits for even longer.

All U3As are affiliated to the U3A Trust but operate autonomously and so differ from each other in some respects.

However, no account of the U3A movement can be complete without a mention of the social dimension that it offers people.

Joining a U3A will almost certainly help you to make the transition from work to retirement and before long you may wonder how you ever found time to go to work.

So, there you have it. If you were sitting comfortably, reading Time of your Life, I hope that you will now want to find out a bit more about this university' and the part it could play in your retirement.

For more information visit the websites: or